PSIXXX10.1177/1529100615578662WartellaEducational Apps: What We Do and Do Not Know

Educational Apps: What We Do and Do Not Know

Psychological Science in the Public Interest 2015, Vol. 16(1) 1­–2 © The Author(s) 2015 Reprints and permissions: sagepub.com/journalsPermissions.nav DOI: 10.1177/1529100615578662 pspi.sagepub.com

Ellen Wartella Center on Media and Human Development and Department of Communication Studies, Northwestern University

This is a timely and important article on a topic that has been clouded both theoretically and empirically. Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, Jennifer M. Zosh, Roberta Michnick Golinkoff, James H. Gray, Michael B. Robb, and Jordy Kaufman have developed an extensive review of the literature on apps that offers a compelling blueprint for future research and development. As they note, there has been an explosion of apps for children, particularly ones called “educational,” over the past few years. In 2014, the Apple Store held over 75,000 apps classified as educational. Yet we have little evaluation of the educational quality of most of these apps. What few studies we do have are reviewed here. The lack of empirical study of the educational nature of this vast array of apps has clearly been impeded by a lack of agreement on how to conduct such a content study. This review makes an especially important contribution to the literature: The authors argue that theory and research in the learning sciences offer an evidencebased blueprint for analyzing the educational quality of apps. Through an analysis of what learning scientists have discerned about effective learning environments, the authors offer four principles, or pillars, of an optimal learning environment for children younger than age 8. Young children’s learning is optimized when children are cognitively active and engaged and when their learning experiences are meaningful, socially interactive, and goal directed. This article goes on to elaborate these principles. First, active learning occurs when children are “mindson”—that is, engaged in thinking, reflecting, and effortful mental activity. As the authors note, swiping, tapping, and physically engaging with an app is not the same as “minds-on” activity. Second, by “engagement,” the authors refer to focused attention and a lack of distraction from other elements in the app or the environment. Children are engaged when they stay on task, free of distraction. Third, the app should encourage meaningful learning—that is, it should help children connect new knowledge or information to their preexisting

knowledge through learning that is relevant and purposeful. The fourth pillar is the importance of highquality social interaction between the learner and others (e.g., a teacher, a parent, another child or peer). There is substantial evidence from research in education to indicate the importance of cooperative and collaborative learning environments for young children. Especially important is the idea of “social contingency”: That backand-forth interaction between speakers in a dialog is an important aspect of how social interaction aids children’s learning. Finally, these four pillars of active, engaged, meaningful, and socially interactive learning experiences should be embedded in a setting that is educationally goal oriented. This educational context for learning will support the child learner by scaffolding those activities through which the child discovers and explores the new knowledge the learning environment is providing. The authors argue that scaffolding can be provided by an app’s structure and design in addition to the setting in which the child uses the app. These principles are then applied by the authors to create an educational profile that they argue can be used by educators, researchers, parents, and app developers. Their own illustration of how to analyze apps on the basis of these principles is clear and convincing. This article thus offers a blueprint for both the development of apps that are meant to be educational and the assessment of the educational quality of apps already developed. This blueprint is informed by the learningscience literature and the principles for creating the best learning environment for children, whether that be in a classroom, via educational television, or through educationally oriented apps. Further, the authors challenge some of the assumptions regarding the uniqueness of Corresponding Author: Ellen Wartella, Center on Media and Human Development and Department of Communication Studies, 2148 Frances Searle Building, Northwestern University, 2240 Campus Drive, Evanston, IL 60208 E-mail: [email protected]

2 apps in the current media landscape that I think are important to highlight. First, there has been in the wider literature on children and media an assumption that interactive media such as apps are so different from traditional media, such as television, as to make our understanding of how to create educational traditional media irrelevant to the development of educational apps. As this article demonstrates, these learning principles do indeed capture the best of our understanding of educational television as well as educational apps. That is not just fortuitous, it is an important statement. Indeed, the history of media study in the 20th century tended to be distinctive because the focus of study shifted from one medium to the next over the course of the century, such that each era of media research was distinct from its predecessor and did not cite the earlier research. The vast array of research on television’s educational ability could help provide a reasonable point of comparison for studying apps. Second, the authors offer a much better conceptual approach to understanding the concept of interactivity. Here, this review provides an especially important addition to the literature. This article does not start with an analysis of interactivity; rather it starts from learning principles. The authors talk about interactivity as an aspect of apps, especially the social interactivity that should surround children’s engagement with educational material; they deconstruct the concept in such a way as to provide much greater transparency and specificity. While interactivity is clearly an aspect of educational apps addressed here, most important for optimal learning to occur is that the interaction between the child and the app meet the learning principles of active, mindful engagement in a socially supportive environment. In short, the child learner can be thought to have various kinds of interactions in the learning environment: physical interactions with the media device, mindful interactions with the

Wartella content, and social interactions with other partners in the social setting. Interactivity as an aspect of apps is not a simple concept. Third, this article encourages a principle of learning through media that we have learned helps young children learn in any media setting: the importance of joint media engagement, whereby parents, caregivers, siblings, or peers use media with young children. Joint media engagement, and socially interactive learning more generally, offers young children an environment that can help them learn through the Vygotskian notion of scaffolding, or extending children’s learning beyond what they would learn left on their own, or beyond their zone of proximal development achievement. This underscores the importance of social interaction during media use for optimizing young children’s learning outcomes. Finally, this article takes an interesting perspective on the elements important to understand when examining the impact of media on children’s learning and development. The authors employ Lisa Guernsey’s model for understanding media effects on children, which focuses on three factors: the child, the content, and the context of media use. However, the article offers a considerably elaborated notion of content beyond the traditional description of content to be taught (reading, math, and science). The authors suggest that in addition to these three cs, a fourth consideration in assessing the likely effects of educational media is the construction of the learning environment the media object evokes. Whether the app constructs a learning environment that optimizes children’s active, engaged, and meaningful social interaction toward a learning goal is another consideration that should be made when trying to assess the likely impact of an educational medium. This is an important conceptual advancement for future research on how children learn from these interactive media products and especially for studying the educational quality of apps.

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Educational apps: what we do and do not know.

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